From Congress Square Park in Portland, Maine to Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey, the global fight to save public space has begun. As the residents of Istanbul gather to save their last public park from being turned into a shopping mall, I feel a new sense of hope and solidarity as I stand up to save Congress Square Park in Portland from becoming a ballroom.
What started out as a protest by residents in Istanbul last week to save over 600 trees has turned into a general march and protest in the streets. In 2010, I had the pleasure of visiting Istanbul and walked through this particular park. Today, images have spread across the Internet of young women at the park being sprayed with hoses by Turkish police, and protestors in the streets being hit with tear gas.
Last week, over sixty people spoke during City Council in support of saving Congress Square Park and against the sale of the space to the Westin Hotel and Rockbridge Capital. Similar to the meeting at City Hall a few weeks ago to pass a resolution banning tar sands oil, it seemed like a few men in business suits bore more influence over City Council than the dozens of constituents who spoke in the majority (“The Portland City Council Should be more than just concerned about Tar Sands” https://hollyseeliger.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/the-portland-city-council-should-be-more-than-just-concerned-about-tar-sands/ ). The legacy of the current City Council is their complete support of major hotels in Portland, as several new hotels are currently being built in town with plans to build more hotels in the future.
The more that I work to support public space in Portland, the more that I realize that I am working in solidarity with people all around the world who are fighting the trend of privatization and the concept of “eminent domain”. During the Occupy Lincoln Park encampment last year, I experienced for the first time in my life a sense of altruism and community that I can only compare to a spiritual experience. The spontaneous utilization of public space inspired me to run for office, to participate in art in public space, and to commit to doing what I can to create community in a realm beyond the political. The occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt during 2011 helped spur “the Arab Spring” and showed the world that public space can begin to embody the beliefs of those who inhabit the space. As Turkish citizens gather, the Occupy movement has once again articulated that threats to public space and public life are not limited to Istanbul.
During our current “Great Recession”, certain political agendas have sought privatization and the selling of public land in order for corporations to gobble up resources. Some City Council members in Portland believe that since the park has been “neglected”, it is in the best interest to sell the space privately to the hotel. History has shown us that public space is inherently linked to freedom of expression, and this is certainly not the first time in recent memory that a nation has used space to promote freedom, beauty and civil, economic and ecological rights. When a people want their opinions and voices to be heard by others, we turn to open, shared spaces such as plazas, streets and parks. When governments are not interested in what we have to say, public space is no longer a priority and private sale is encouraged (as one can see in Gezi Park’s case and now Congress Square Park).
Over a year ago, I helped host an event at Congress Square Park that sought to bring attention to the space through a free music event. On Saturday, July 6, we will be hosting “Congress Square Dance Party” with free music and dancing starting at 1pm (Facebook event page https://www.facebook.com/events/439208689509214/). I want to occupy this space in order to improve the park for the people. I would love for the city to once again gather to protect our common parks, our Portland heritage, and to preserve Congress Square Park for freedom of speech for generations to come!